The Town Under the Castle
In addition to the little corner lot of Fumi and her relatives’, there are so many different places to explore in this town. You can practically go anywhere on foot, even to places beyond the daily needs stores, like the original Samurai Period merchants’ stores: the children’s clinic, the otolaryngology office, the dentist, the electric store, the rice store (Mr. Yoshino), a couple general stores, the yarn store (Ms. Sato), the liquor store, the clock store (Uncle & Aunt Watch and Yasu’s house), the tavern (Mitch’s house), the floral store, the confectionery store, the street car station, the meat store, the fish store, and the Lutheran Church that has a concrete block fenced playground where the neighbor kids often play. I am one of these kids, even though I don’t consider my family as Christian.
In the back of the living room corner of Fumi’s house, a black wooden Buddhist altar is sitting at home with dignity. In the altar, there are a picture of Fumi’s husband, his mortuary, two white candles, a scent jar, two vases, a gold teacup-like gong, a little rice bowl, and two tiny tea cups. All items in the altar represent appreciation and respect for the family’s ancestors. It is the heir (usually the first son in the family) family’s responsibility to take care of the altars and graves in the temple. People believe that their ancestors’ spirit brings happiness and health to the family due to their practice of this consistent ritual. Every morning, freshly made rice and green tea are served at the altar. Offering them to the altar before anybody has their meal is a way to respect ancestors and elders. The candles and green scent are lit accordingly. Mother does this routine most of the time. Putting her hands together in front of her chest, she hits the gong twice, closes her eyes, puts her head down, and mumbles a ritual chant for a long time, maybe ten times longer than what one of her kids does. When she is satisfied with her long prayer for the day, she puts out the candle light by waving her hand to send wind. “Don’t blow the candles,” she scolds. Blowing breath at the altar is exclusively prohibited. It shows disrespect against the ancestors.
All in all, it sounds like some kind of joke that this genuinely Not-Christian family, which is mine, is sending kids to the Christian Sunday School almost every Sunday. Interestingly enough, my mother, the most serious altar prayer with her long ritual chant, attends the Sunday service with the kids sometimes. Each child sits on the bench holding 10 cents in their hand for a donation. The gentle speaking pastor’s wife asks for a volunteer to read a part of the Bible. A big girl’s name is always called. Not only does she never ask me to read, but she also ignores my confident hand shooting up in the air. I sadly conclude that she doesn’t know me well enough. The best part of the Sunday school are the imaginative and entertaining activities. Last year’s Christmas play was one of them. Though I always didn’t get a significant role at this church, I truly enjoyed holding the baby Jesus doll in my arms between rehearsals. I ended up performing as a “tree” in the real play. Another activity I loved was the old newspaper dress contest. Teaming up with some new kids, we created a dress with old newspaper and toothpicks. Surprisingly, our dress didn’t look filthy despite the materials used. It looked rather gorgeous. And what satisfaction and accomplishment we shared! After the dismissal of Sunday school, most of us directly met up at the tiny playground.
The Church playground has big toys, a swing set, and a sand box for all ages. Until I went there, I had never seen a jungle gym before. Climbing up it is like conquering a castle. I, the king, govern one part of the jungle gym, and the other side is the other kings’ property. My mother lets us play there any time we want without supervision, even after a visit to the doctor. By the way, nobody in town ever makes appointments with any doctors. Most of the medical facilities are walk-in only. Anyway, it is hard to ignore the playground in between our house and the clinic, especially after having painful shots on my butt. I am very thankful to have such joyful memories and places in this town, even after I got hit by a donkey. I wonder whether the good discipline of my Christian church-going habit or my mother’s diligent daily prayer to the Buddhist altar brings me this good fortune. It might not be either one. It might be both. It might be a coincidence. Do I belong to one particular religious group? I don’t even understand the meaning of “faith”.